The return of minimalism may end up being one of the things that we remember this year for. Gem Club, a boy/girl duo from Massachusetts, is one in a clutch of newcomers who believe that less is more. Breakers, their debut LP, consists of nothing more than vocal work, piano, cello and occasional percussion, but silence plays as large a role as any of them. This is quietly affecting barebones pop that has been distilled from placid instrumentation and furtive sentiments into something stronger than the sum of its parts.
Breakers swells with gentle desolation, the perfect soundtrack to scenes of empty playgrounds and clouds amassing over frozen cities. Themes of loss, inescapable change, and loneliness are uttered by wispy, impalpable voices that are ready to collapse in on themselves when touched. It’s cold, but thanks to well-placed flourishes and interesting vocal performances, it doesn’t end up feeling ahuman. The production lends to this chilliness, and Christopher Barnes and Krysten Drymala’s voices blend so well it sounds like they have been tampered with on the soundboard.
There’s nothing splashy about the mixing, but the pairing of their voices adds an extra dimension the quiescent musicianship. On “252,” the vocal crescendos at the chorus are positively elegiac, as arching melodic shapes overlay piano work that prevents you from feeling totally comfortable. It’s anxious without being claustrophobic, but there remains the sense that something is out of place. On “Lands” the pauses between the lines: “All the riders coming / Through the dark” are as cathartic as they are menacing. The empty space is used effectively, and the lo-fi crackle of the percussion takes what should be a tidy little piano ballad and makes it feel like it was scribbled out in a panic. Tension dwells even within the more musically uplifting songs. “Red Arrows”’ minor-key distensions would seem mournfully buoyant if it weren’t for the afflicted lyrics.
The nine tracks are consistent in their intent and sound, which will likely be as attractive to some as it is unappealing to others. The lyrics are sometimes mumbled, but even the way they sound add to the overarching melancholia; “I saw you build the ships / And tangle them in branches / But I can’t feel my hands anymore” Christopher Barnes sings on the slow motion waltz “Black Ships.” The emotional dissonance and is hard to feel dismay simply because it’s executed with such fervency, but it does end up feeling just a bit recurrent.
The middle of the record sags, with lesser tracks like “I Heard the Party” and “Tanager” disrupting the albums slow but assured momentum, but taken as a whole they don’t take away from the barely audible sense of panic. Pretty, moody, and even transcendently beautiful in places, Breakers‘ small-scale take on dream pop is a tempestuous and emotionally unhinged listen. You may wish it was in full colour rather than black and white, but Breakers expertly sustains a single mood, and you end up exactly where it’s trying to take you.
Plugging away since 1999, The National finally hit mainstream success with the release of their 2010 album High Violet. Of course, this entailed their first world tour, but in the new documentary Mistaken For Strangers, it’s only the backdrop for the relationship between lead singer Matt Berninger and his younger brother Tom, who had no idea that these short videos he was shooting would turn into a public document of their troubled, if still loving brotherhood.
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